Forgiving the Person I Hated the Most
By TOM LAGANA
from “Serving Productive Time”
Almost everyone I meet receives a hug—a hug coupon, that is. My unique calling cards not only provide information about our business but are also redeemable for a hug, a smile, or an act of kindness.
Working with inmates doesn’t make me the most sought after member of social circles, but it does provide an element of interest when I meet people. Other people’s opinions of me don’t ruffle my feathers. Some folks have asked blunt questions like, “You work with prisoners? Why do you stoop so low?” Whenever I hear such comments from uninformed people, I look them in the eyes and think to myself, I’d rather be chatting with an inmate than listening to you right now. Most people are receptive to our work; for them the hug coupons are a constructive icebreaker.
On a trip to Arizona, my wife and I took several tours, including Sedona’s energy vortexes, the Grand Canyon, and the Hopi Indian reservation. Each tour lasted most of the day, giving us an opportunity to get to know the handful of people who shared the experience with us. Two of our guides were Native Americans who helped pass the time during our long drives by describing tribal customs and sharing native folklore.
I gave everyone a hug coupon during our excursions. When our crew realized the connection my wife and I have with prisoners, they revealed aspects of their private lives that under other circumstances would have remained private.
The guide on our first excursion told us about his son who was serving a long prison sentence. A Canadian gentleman seated behind us in the van mentioned that after a gratifying twenty-year career in corrections, he now ministers to inmates.
On the final tour, our Native American guide, George, mentioned that he had been incarcerated. As the hours unfolded, he revealed more about himself, along with local and ancestral history. He seemed almost relieved to be able to talk about what had happened to him years before. He had worked hard to become a successful guide and expert in his field.
Near the end of our adventure, I felt compelled to ask, “What made you turn your life around?”
“One day it hit me. I realized if I wanted to change my life, I needed to forgive the person I hated the most.”
“Who was that?” I asked. Conversation ceased as we focused on what George would say next.
“It wasn’t my mother or father or anyone who’d harmed me. The person I hated the most was the person I faced every morning when I shaved. Every day in prison, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I hated myself. Deep inside my heart, I knew I had to do something about it.”
We waited patiently for George to continue. “Each day I’d look in the mirror and say to myself, I forgive you, and I love you. It felt phony at first. I didn’t believe it, but I felt the need to say it every day. One day I finally accepted the idea that I’m a worthwhile person who deserves to be forgiven.”
As we stepped out of the van, we all redeemed our hug coupons. I think we realized that a loving Spirit in a mystical land had touched us in a unique way, allowing us to make a special connection.
In early spring of 2005 an inmate was assigned by authorities at the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) to work in the Ft. Lyons plumbing shop by virtue of his past experience with remodeling and plumbing. In the course of his assigned duties this inmate, Reggie N. Keyes, R# 56804, ran across warning posters in the maze of plumbing beneath the building. Having spent 30 years in the remodeling industry he was well aware that the warnings indicated the presence of asbestos. When undisturbed, asbestos poses no threat to humans in the vicinity. Through the course of his work with the prison crew, he became aware that the asbestos materials were being disturbed while reconfiguring the hospital facility into a prison facility. None of these inmates had been informed of the risk nor given the proper safety gear to prevent inhalation of the dangerous particles.
Mr. Keyes became aware of a case being presented in court known as the Montez case. The Montez case is a class action suit filed on behalf of inmates within Colorado correctional facilities including various allegations of negligence and abuses. Reggie collected samples of the asbestos material and mailed them to the attorneys working on the Montez case and other attorneys including Judge Richard M. Borchers, Michael W. McDivitt, and others. Of anyone to have correspondence with, Mr. Keyes deduced that the attorneys already mounting a case were the ones he should contact about the gross negligence. The letters including his testimony and the asbestos samples were logged in as “Legal Mail”. Inquiry of these attorneys revealed that no correspondence was received by the intended party.
Information received from the United States Postmaster General confirmed that articles mailed from a prison mail room do not become part of the U.S. Mail delivery system until those items are physically placed in a mail receptacle or into the hands of an authorized mail carrier. Therefore the Office of the Inspector General of Colorado in essence has control of every piece of mail going in or out of any detention facility. This gives the Office of the Inspector General motive and opportunity to prevent Mr. Keyes from providing information to the public of hazardous waste of which the Colorado D.O.C. has been exposing inmates and employees.
May 18, 2005. Mr. Keyes and Mr. Jeffrey Baker were involved in a minor scuffle while loading the plumbing cart for the day’s work-related activity. Mr. Baker received a shin bark and 40 minutes later Mr. Keyes was arrested. The charge was use of contraband for the misuse of a 3/8 inch all thread, a commonly used piece of plumbers’ equipment. He was tried and convicted for that minor scuffle and ultimately sentenced to 24 years where no injury occurred.
“We work on all kinds of issues, from medical care to abuse and assault, from religious issues to parole. Because D.C. is not a state, it creates a lot of added complexities for the prison population here. Currently, D.C. has a jail, but not a prison. Since Lorton Reformatory closed in 2001, we now rely on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house our prisoners. There was no real reason for Lorton to close. The federal government could have taken it over when D.C. was facing financial trouble. Allegedly, there were all kinds of deals made, and the land is now townhouses. Because of that, D.C. prisoners can be sent to any of the 90-plus prisons around the country, although they try and keep them within 500 miles of D.C. However, it is not uncommon to find D.C. prisoners in California, Colorado, or Texas. For a while, D.C. juveniles were kept in North Dakota. We worked to get that overturned.
“While there are some positive changes, the overall trend with prisoners here is getting worse. In D.C., the police arrest roughly 25,000 people a year. Eighteen thousand of those people go through the jail. Obviously, poorer and African-American communities are disproportionately affected. These areas are so heavily policed that it is hard not to get arrested. My favorite statistic is that D.C. sends more people to prison for violations of the terms of their parole than for felonies. That means that more people go to jail for not actually committing a crime than for committing a crime, which is ridiculous. If we had control over our parole system, that would cut down on thousands of people going to jail. But, there doesn’t seem to be a real interest in addressing these problems.
“Parole is another big issue in the District. When D.C. switched from local to federal control, the U.S. Parole Commission took over control of parole in the District from the D.C. Board of Parole. As a result, hundreds of D.C. prisoners were denied parole because they were now being assessed by different guidelines. When D.C. was in control, a parole board could not take into account your crime, unless it was particularly heinous, when deciding on parole. The parole decision was to be made based on your conduct in jail and your rehabilitation. In the last year, we worked with a number of law firms to release somewhere between 400 and 500 people denied fair access to a parole hearing.
“Hopefully, the more people who visit prisons and understand the horrible conditions in some of these places, the more they will become sympathetic to prisoners’ rights. The people in these prisons are not all monsters. However, many people view them as less than human, which opens the door to do all kinds of terrible things to them. Now, a prisoner can be placed in segregation, which could mean being alone in a sensory deprivation cell with almost no human contact whatsoever for months or years. That is not a humane way to treat people. While they are criminals, that doesn’t mean that we can overlook their basic rights.
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